I’ve been doing comedy as a living for nine years. I’ve won awards, been on TV, made thousands and thousands of people laugh. I’ve done everything I hoped I would do, but almost never in the manner I expected.
I recently did a week at New Wine, Newark. Seven nights, seven different hours of comedy. On night one we had about 150 punters turn up. By night five we had 450 crammed into a venue which was only supposed to hold 270. I left New Wine feeling like the week had been the absolute highlight of my career. And if you’d told me that nine years ago, I would probably have cried.
I got into comedy to be really good at comedy. In my mind, getting really good at comedy would mean things like Mock the Week, Live at the Apollo, hilarious guest slots on Jonathan Ross. It wouldn’t mean being the golden boy of the charismatic-evangelical outreach world (whatever that means).
For those first couple of years, travelling the length and breadth of the country for pittance, I didn’t so much thrive as endure. But I wanted it; I really wanted it. If I could hang in there, the talent spotters and TV execs would come calling.
They did and they didn’t. I won a couple of awards early on and started using words like stratospheric when plotting the arc of my career. But awards are only ever a reflection of what you’ve already done – not a guarantee of what you will do next. I fluffed a few opportunities, bottled it in front of big promoters, and those open doors were peremptorily closed.
I started doing church outreach gigs just to help pay the bills and keep me sharp for the proper gigs – the ones in comedy clubs. I prayed for a spot on primetime BBC TV – I got featured on Songs of Praise.
I used to be embarrassed by the church gigs. I didn’t see them as authentic or artistically valid. They weren’t real gigs.
But over time I’ve come to terms with a few things. For a start, I make good living from comedy. That, and nothing more, was the original aim. I get to wake up every day, wear my own clothes, and write funny stuff to make people laugh – as a job! (NB: I also regularly bid online for cattle, but that’s not relevant here).
I’ve also realised that performing in comedy clubs doesn’t actually authenticate you as anything other than a jobbing comedian – the sort that has to spend as much of his 30-minute set controlling the aled-up stag-dos as he does on rolling out his own crafted material. At a church gig, however, I get to do 90 minutes (usually) without distraction.
Sometimes the lack of alcohol makes the audience quieter initially, but if you make them laugh, they will warm up. In addition, barring a few exceptions, gigs for churches tend not to be in gothic Anglican structures that stifles comedy, but in new-build warehouses with proper stages and lighting where you can rip the roof off as though it were the Comedy Store. The church is still naively wary of comedy and its potential in outreach, but we are much, much further on than when I started comedy.
The main thing I’ve come to terms with is that people are people. You don’t get more credit for making people in a comedy club laugh than people in a church. They may, generally, laugh at different things, but so what?
My path has not been as strewn with Wembley appearances as I might have hoped, but when someone invited to a church gig decides they like what they’ve seen and sign up for an Alpha/Christianity Explored course, then meet Jesus and get baptised, is that what I had in mind nine years ago? Absolutely not. Is it, in fact, absolutely brilliant? Hell, yes. And would I swap the present reality for the decade-old pipe-dream?
You must be joking.